PULLMAN – As it did against Colorado State in the NCAA first round on Friday, Tennessee dropped the opening two sets against Washington State in the second round Saturday.
Against the Rams, the Volunteers roared back to win three in a row.
They also took the third set from the Cougars, 25-19.
Here is where the Vols’ hopeful narrative unraveled.
WSU coach Jen Greeny said winning points late in the third set gave the Cougs momentum going into the fourth. In the fourth set, WSU pushed a meager 10-9 lead to 16-9 when Ashley Brown held serve for six points, and the Cougars used that energy to go on to defeat Tennessee, 25-13, to take the match 3-1 and advance to the NCAA regional against Stanford.
Having gotten beyond the second round for the first time in her career in a match in which leaping ability, kill velocity and impenetrable blocking were paramount, Cougars hitter McKenna Woodford was practically alight with eagerness to take that power game to Palo Alto, California, and show it off to the Cardinal, who have a pair of wins against WSU this year.
“This hasn’t happened to us in two years. In the past, this is where we’ve ended,” she said of WSU’s second-round victory. As for Stanford, “We’ve played down there before. This isn’t new to us.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row.”
As much as blunting Tennessee’s momentum after the third set was crucial, the key to the match may have occurred much earlier. WSU survived five lead changes in the opening set, and a late-game slugfest ended when Ella Lajos threw up a corner block for set point, giving the Cougars a 30-28 win. Woodford and Jocelyn Urias were beasts in that game for WSU with six and eight kills, respectively.
“The first set was absolutely huge,” Greeny said. “Any time you get that first set, it puts pressure on the other team.”
It also showed the Cougars they could absorb Tennessee’s best shot. Tessa Grubbs, the Vols’ 6-3 outside hitter and its most imposing leaper, led Tennessee with seven kills and a set-high 16 total attacks, and it still wasn’t enough to establish front-line dominance for Tennessee against the Cougars.
Grubbs had a match-high 21 kills. But Woodford answered with 19 for the Cougars, Urias had 14, and Taylor Mims gave WSU an all-around standout performance with 17 kills, six digs and three service aces.
“We’re also big people,” Woodford said of WSU’s battle at the net with physical Tennessee. “We’re used to it. We handled it well.”
Tennessee assistant coach Tyler Adams, who led the team because head coach Eve Rackham gave birth to her first child in November, said of the Cougars, “They’re a big team, with a lot of big, physical athletes. Their block was effective.”
As the match wore on, WSU’s back-line defense was also tested and came up big. Against an unfamiliar opponent “sometimes it takes the defense time to adjust,” according to Greeny.
“We started digging really well at the end of the match,” she said.
Libero Alexis Dirige gave WSU a match-best 18 digs, and outside hitter Penny Tusa added 15 digs.
As WSU’s players must have done after early tournament exits in the past, the Volunteers were making the best of their experience in Pullman.
“This whole thing was a learning experience,” said Grubbs, a junior. “Not a single person on this roster had ever been to the NCAA. Everything we learned today and yesterday we’re going to have to convert and come back next year with a vengeance.”
Washington 3, Creighton 0: Samantha Drechsel had 14 kills and Lauren Sanders added seven kills and eight blocks, guiding the Huskies’ sweep over the host Bluejays (29-5) in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Huskies (20-12) will advance to next weekend’s regional against Penn State (25-7). They’ll be in the same regional as Washington State.
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